Prof Richard English returned to Queen’s University this time last year to take up his post as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internationalisation and Engagement. He’ll be involved in two sessions at the National Trust’s Mount Stewart Conversations next Sunday, looking at Brexit and Nationalism.
I spoke to him ahead of the event and asked whether he felt it was important that academics share their thinking and expertise with a wider audience and also listen to their feedback outside the environs of the university campus?
“My view would be that both as a professor of politics and a pro-vice chancellor that professors should profess and what universities do in house is vitally important in terms of research and education but they should also contribute to debate and listen to debate outside universities.
“If it’s a subject relating to something like Brexit which is of high interest and high importance to many people in society at wide, it seems to me it would be outrageous if people in the university who are expert on it don’t talk about it and it would be outrageous of universities not to listen to the various different views that there are. So I’m very much committed to the idea that Queen’s University should be engaged in wider societal debate.”
Nationalism has been a theme of his research for over a decade and the topic being discussed at his 2.45pm session (tickets required) next Sunday. He’ll be joined on stage by Prof Roy Foster, emeritus professor of Irish History at Oxford and professor of Irish History and Literature at Queen Mary London.
“I first became interested in studying nationalism in the form of the IRA, a very particular form of nationalism: in the twentieth century, aggressively separatist, specifically based in Ireland and very militantly in pursuit of a particular type of state.”
English’s more recent work has looked at the broader theories of nationalism.
“One of the strengths of nationalism is that it manages to offer so many things to so many different kinds of people: so there’s left wing nationalism, right wing nationalism, rural nationalism, urban nationalism, the nationalism of those who want to protect the culture of a state that already exists and the nationalism of those who want to pursue a state which doesn’t yet exist but they feel should.”
While English himself is “not a nationalist of any particular nation” he thinks that nationalism is “arguably the most important force in modern human history” and it is important to understand its appeal.
“While each nationalism is unique – Polish nationalism very different from Irish nationalism – there are some family resemblances between them in terms of the particular strands of community identification, the very strong appeal of community in struggle, and ultimately the pursuit or defence of political power on behalf of a nation in which you find yourself to be comfortable and which you feel will strengthen your own individual interests at a communal level.”
The session is entitled Return to the Future: Is Nationalism Natural?
“Nationalism is certainly normal in the sense that it has become arguably the pervasive way of people organising themselves as humans. Many of the things that humans want – in terms of human nature, to do with security, identity and narratives of meaning – have been things that nationalism has spoken to very powerfully. That is a lot of why it is so successful.
“But I don’t think it’s natural in the sense that if you’re not a nationalist then you are somehow unnatural! … The embedding of nationalism within so much of a wider consciousness seems to me to be inexplicable unless it does speak repeatedly across many different periods to things that humans repeatedly want: so an attachment to territory, to people, to certain types of precious culture, to certain kinds of dissent group. These seem to be things which repeatedly resonate with people and for someone like myself who is sceptical about it as a nationalist ‘believer’… you have to respect its importance and its capacity to bring so many people with it.”
Is nationalism becoming sullied by supremacist thinking? Some minority activity in the US is just one example of nationalism being taken to ugly extremes.
“I think nationalism can be expressed in ways that are unappealing and heinous as well as in ways that are attractive and creative: it probably spans from one end of that continuum to the other. In that sense, nationalism is rather like major religions where you can find many things that are compassionate, merciful and generous but then in the name of major religions there have been things done which seem cruel and rather barbaric.”
English is keen that the position some people adopt of wishing that nationalism didn’t exist was instead replaced with seeking out forms of nationalism that are more tolerant and inclusive and allow for as many different kinds of identity to flourish within a national state as possible.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine a post-nationalist world” he said, adding that it is “realistic to argue that more supremacist, triumphalist and brutal nationalisms can be challenged”.
Prior to returning to QUB as pro-vice chancellor, English was director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence University at St Andrews University.
“One of the interesting things about these islands is that in quite a small setting you have lots of different kinds of nationalists. Even if you take for example separatist nationalisms competing against the UK state, they way in which it is being pursued by Scottish nationalists as opposed to Irish nationalists has been very different. I’ve written extensively on the IRA. There’s no major equivalent of the IRA in Scottish separatist nationalism. So there are rival ways of pursuing struggle.”
Within nationalisms, despite having different methods he sees “echoes of behaviours and attitudes” between them.
“The complexity has family resemblances across cases, but each case ultimately has to be respected as being unique. Scottish nationalism is different from Welsh nationalism and I think what some people have argued as a recently emerging English nationalism has to be seen as different again because most people who are referred to as English nationalists don’t actually wake up in the morning and try to establish an English state in the way that many Irish nationalists historically have.
“And even some of the more nationalistic parties in England have had titles like ‘United Kingdom’ independence Party and ‘British’ National Party and have therefore been British or UK-ian rather than English in their identity.”
He’s sees the situation in Catalonia as “a powerful linguistic nationalist movement [that is] anti-centralising and has a litany of grievances against the central Spanish state”.
“The Catalonian largely non-violent nationalism looks probably more likely to gain independence than the Basque sometime violent nationalism. Just as within these islands you might argue that Scotland is more likely to leave the UK that Northern Ireland and it’s Scotland where the violence hasn’t happened.
“So one of the interesting points of comparison is abot the effectiveness of different modes of separatist struggle. I would see the Catalan movement now as one that is growing in fervour and which is very much a national movement. The difficulty for central states – the Spanish state or the UK state – when they’re facing these separatist nationalisms is that sometimes if you give a measure of independence in the hope of diluting the nationalism it can increase the demands that there are.
“The increasing autonomous power of the SNP within Scotland hasn’t got rid of the desire for further freedom; if anything it’s maybe given greater confidence and I suspect that might also be something that has happened in the Catalan case as well.”
In 1992 Francis Fukuyama expanded his 1989 essay into the book The End of History and the Last Man. He argues that the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
English believes that Fukuyama’s argument was published around the time the Cold War was ending and liberal democracy as the best way of organising societies of humans seemed to some people like an answer to this new situation.
“I don’t think that history tends to be inexorable. It is contingent and unpredictable rather than going on one particular journey [towards liberal democracy]. You could argue that in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent wars of the 21st century that the notion that the liberal democracy is the end point to which people are moving might seem much more questionable.
“Having said that, what Fukuyama brilliantly did was to say that there has been a trend towards people thinking that liberal democracies are a fabulous way of organising humanity and implied in that is the idea that those liberal democracies quite often have a national flag hanging over them. So it’s a liberal democracy, but it’s a French liberal democracy, or a Dutch liberal democracy, and in that sense the sustaining of liberal democracies is partly dependent on the emotional drive that you get from being a national democracy at the same time …
“He was thinking that the major ideological argument had been won by liberal democrats. Whether he’s right about that I’m not at all convinced. But the article in the book brilliantly generated a debate which even many decades on people still referred to the book and the ideas … Being brilliantly wrong at the right time is not a bad thing to be as an academic!”
English hopes that audiences will come to hear the Mount Stewart Conversations because in Roy Foster they have “the most brilliant of Irish historians who has written wonderfully on nationalism”.
“Nationalism is something that defines the ways in which the European Union is struggling at the moment or the way the United States of America is facing kinds of division. The crucial thing about this kind of conversation is yes, it’s got an Irish voice to it which is particularly important, but it’s also a global set of stories that we all need to reflect on. No better to debate this than [here] because Irish experiences of nationalism for good or ill or both have been really profound for a very long time and it’s a discussion which is a local one but also a global one.”
The 11am session on Brexit, Ireland and the Hard Border is free (though registration is required and you’ll have to pay the normal entrance fee to access the Mount Stewart site). Prof Richard English will be joined by Irish Times commentator Fintan O’Toole and BBC NI’s business editor John Campbell.
“It’s a topic on which everyone has a view and I’m looking forward to hearing people’s opinions.
“It’s as important to look at what Brexit tells us about the kind of societies we’ve been – it’s not just what’s going to happen but what it tells you about the divisions within the UK and within Northern Ireland – is a really important thing to reflect on. (Just as the election of President Trump raises challenges for the future, it also tells you an awful lot about the nature of America.)
“Secondly in terms of the answers my suspicion is that even in London it has now dawned on people that there has to be a specific set of Irish answers to Brexit which relate to this island. So I think that there may be greater room for creative solutions about the way in which the north and the south deal with each other which might lie outside some of the normal answers you get in Britain to Brexit.
“So I think what you might end up with is answers which involve two kinds of Brexit: a Brexit for Britain and a Brexit for Northern Ireland as part of the island of Ireland. Now that is not going to be easy but I do think that the penny has dropped in London that there is a specific way in which Brexit might hit very hard in Ireland and that that could be costly for everybody.
“I’m hopeful that the discussions in Mount Stewart will generate some creative ways of saying we can do this to mitigate the dangers and we can try to maximise the benefits of it. My own view is that I don’t think Brexit is a particularly helpful development for Northern Ireland or for the rest of the UK but we do have the opportunity to say here are things we need to sort out and here are things we need to protect against and I suspect if we can come up with good Irish answers London will listen to them.”
So join in the conversation next weekend at the Mount Stewart property on the lough shore. You can find out more about what’s happening in my previous post looking at the wider list of talks, music and activities over the 14-15 October weekend. You can also read an interview with another contributor Bronagh Hinds who spoke to me about women in political discourse and political leadership in NI and abroad.